It’s not always obvious that there’s a downside when your first novel comes out of nowhere and wins the hearts of readers and a cluster of awards and nominations, and runs up the bestseller chart. But when the hubbub dies away and you finally set your mind to writing again, as Gil Adamson did a couple of years after the 2007 publication of her gothic Western The Outlander, you can understand how that success might make you gun-shy.
“Oh yeah, it was terrible,” says Adamson, referring to the uncertainty that hung over her during the 10 years she spent writing Ridgerunner, which came out last month. She was speaking on a Zoom call from the attic office of her house, a cozy, cottagey semi-detached in the east end of Toronto. “It would hurt me, I think, if my publisher or readers were to say, ‘I really liked the first one. This one’s really not that good – I couldn’t get into it, I got bored,’ or whatever.”
“There was huge pressure to not disappoint people.”
Good news, then. The trade publication Quill & Quire praised Adamson’s “sly wit and deep insight into her characters,” and noted her prose “packs a significant punch and draws the reader into the novel’s world with a startling immediacy.” During a recent interview with Adamson on Facebook Live, Kingston WritersFest artistic director Barbara Bell said Ridgerunner was “sure to raise another global hurrah from critics and readers.”
The new book is not just a follow-up to The Outlander; it’s a sequel – though it can be read independently. That first novel, set in 1903, followed 19-year-old Mary Bolton, referred to as “the widow,” on the run from the vengeful twin brothers of the husband she had just murdered. Mary has a brief, tender encounter with thief and hermit William Moreland, known as the Ridgerunner, and ends up pregnant.
Ridgerunner begins in 1917 with Mary’s death. (That’s not a spoiler; it’s the premise.) Moreland, bereft, leaves their 12 year-old son, Jack, in the care of an enigmatic, overbearing nun in Banff, Alta., and sets out to commit a series of break-and-enters he hopes will reap enough cash to give Jack a comfortable life. But their boy, who has his parents’ stubbornness and itch for self-sufficiency, doesn’t stay put for long, heading back to the woods to live alone in the family cabin.
As with The Outlander, Adamson’s new book is underpinned by years of research on the historical period, which included four visits to Library and Archives Canada in Ottawa. “Have you been? It’s frigging amazing,” she says. “You have to order [materials] ahead of time, and then it comes from a cave in the Gatineau [Hills].”
While doing the research, she thought she might include more in her novel about the prisoners of war who helped build Banff and some of Canada’s national parks system, so she read deeply on the government’s internment operations.
“It was just stacks and stacks of stuff. I’m literally just flipping through, looking for something that goes: Bing! Neat! Weird! Interesting! Human! That kind of thing.” At one point in the novel, she describes an ice palace, constructed by prisoners for the enjoyment of tourists. (You can find photos of it, and the prisoners, online.) “Banff attracted wealthy tourists who had the money for the very beginnings of photography. So the photographic record is insane. You’ll be flipping though, and you’ll see this ice palace made by prisoners and say, ‘I’ve got to put that in my book.’ It’s such a strange thing.”
Other elements she needed to bring the story to life proved more elusive during her research – ironically so, since she was trying to glean them first-hand rather than from a musty archive box. At first, she tried to write Jack as a girl. It wasn’t working, so she began a parallel version. “I think my original working title was Cascade. So it was Cascade: Girl, Cascade: Boy, and I was literally trying to make it fit [with the child as a girl]. And essentially, it needed to be a boy, for some reason that I can’t even describe.”
That came with its own challenges. “I’ve never been a teenage boy, and it’s a big thing, right? Like, that age for boys is pretty intense.” So she asked her male friends what they remembered from that time in their lives. They were no help. “It was amazing how little I got. They don’t really remember, and if they remember, they don’t know what to tell you. And I have to say, if somebody had asked me what it was like being a 13-year-old girl, I’d have a lot to say!”
It may have been her method, she admits. “So many writers are a little bit of an eavesdropper and a watcher. We like to observe people and kind of learn that way. You’re almost likely to hear more information that is voluntarily coming out of them when they don’t think somebody’s listening.”
Still, Adamson (whose birth name is Gillian, pronounced with a soft G) pulled it off. Jack feels as authentically wrought as the world around him. Like her mother, who was born in Edmonton, Adamson has spent time out West, including a spell in Banff after high school. (She is now 59.) “In those days, it was a completely different situation. They really did roll up the streets once tourist season was over and just started drinking. It was a very strange environment to live in, because people had nothing else to do. It was kind of COVID-y, actually.”
Like The Outlander, Ridgerunner reads as an attempt to carve out some Canadian space in a genre normally dominated by American voices. Doing so, she says, is hugely important. “I’m old enough to remember when there was a fear that American culture and American TV and all that stuff would just roll over us like a wave, and their stories would become our stories – and it just didn’t happen. Yes, we are drowning in American stuff, but I don’t think it really has brainwashed us the way we were afraid it was going to do."
She notes that in her Westerns, “there are guns, but they are not magically loaded all the time and blasting non-stop – that’s just a stupid thing you see in Westerns. Ammunition costs money. Nobody shoots guns off next to cattle. You want to lose all the cattle, have a stampede? No, of course you don’t. You carry one gun, and it’s for killing snakes."
As a Canadian, she says, she takes “an uncomfortable step back. You don’t necessarily embrace that particular kind of genre wholeheartedly. You argue with it.”
Ridgerunner has emerged into a world that seems almost as uncertain as the era in which it takes place. What might it have to contribute to the conversations roiling our own time, from the pandemic to the protests in the streets? Adamson says she has talked (at an appropriate physical distance) with her neighbours, who tell her of the plague-related fiction they’ve bought but not read – they’re overwhelmed merely keeping up with the news of the day. And while she’s uncomfortable with the idea of her book being an escape, as some reviews have suggested – “talking about an escape or an adventure seems maybe vulgar” – it is also true that reading historical fiction can provide a different perspective on our own lives.
“It makes you think about your past and potentially your future, because you know what happens next [in history], and the characters don’t. So there’s a sort of pull-focus, is that what it’s called? You basically see the larger situation." She chuckles self-consciously. "That’s a grandiose way of describing it.”
"Right after the setting of Ridgerunner, things got pretty awful, right?” (In short: millions more killed, war finally ends, Spanish flu erupts.) “I did research on that, and I knew I didn’t have the scope in the book to deal with it. But I did do research on it, and you see this horrific sine wave – of things becoming terrible, and then sort of eventually righting themselves.”
“So, hopefully I’m right that it will get better. But no one knows.”
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